The Minnesota Twins were a thorn in the Detroit Tigers' side in 2014, beating them in 10 of 19 meetings. They outscored the Tigers 119 to 102, and nearly spoiled the Tigers' fourth consecutive division championship before David Price stepped up on the final day of the season to clinch the title. The Twins' excitement had ended long before that day, though. After losing on Opening Day to the Chicago White Sox, the Twins fell a game back in the division. They did not spend a day in first place all year, and eventually finished in last place. The Twins' poor finish resulted in their fourth consecutive 90-loss season, tying their worst stretch since the team arrived in Minnesota in 1961.
However, all is not lost. The Twins won 70 games last season, a four-game improvement from 2013. Their pythagorean win-loss record was 75-87. Their offense, which emphasized working pitch counts and getting on base, resulted in a .324 on-base percentage, second in the American League. They scored 715 runs, more than six playoff teams (including both World Series clubs). Their pitching staff showed signs of improvement, and featured a breakout ace in Phil Hughes.
Most importantly, their farm system got another year of development under its belt. With enough young talent to rival any team in the major leagues -- yes, even the Chicago Cubs -- the Twins are biding their time for a return to prominence. Many of their top players are still a year or two away from the majors, however, making 2015 yet another transitional year in the Twin Cities.
Manager: Paul Molitor (1st season)
2014 record: 70-92
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
First series vs. Tigers: April 6-9 @ Comerica Park
Joe Mauer's days behind the plate might be over, but not many expected his bat to drop off when he transitioned over to first base. Mauer struggled in his first full season on the infield, hitting .277/.361/.371. He was still an above average hitter, as his 106 wRC+ attests, but those numbers were a far cry from his career .319 batting average and 131 wRC+. Rookie designated hitter Kennys Vargas was more effective than Mauer, hitting .274/.316/.456 with nine home runs in 234 plate appearances. Vargas will need to improve on last year's 14.2 percent swinging strike rate if he wants to blossom into the middle-of-the-order threat the Twins hope he can be. Second baseman Brian Dozier delivered a 20-20 season, hitting 23 home runs and stealing 21 bases in 707 plate appearances. He was slightly below average with the glove according to UZR, but his 4.8 WAR ranked fifth among all MLB second basemen. All five of them were in the American League.
Danny Santana spent the majority of his time in center field last season, but he is a natural shortstop who started there on Opening Day. The Twins will probably move the versatile Santana wherever he is needed throughout the year, but he fits best on the infield. He isn't as good of a hitter as his .319/.353/.472 batting line suggests. Santana had a .405 BABIP and 26 percent line drive rate in 430 plate appearances last year. Expect both of those figures (and his wOBA) to drop in 2015. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe set a career high with 40 doubles last season thanks to a newfound ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. He also improved defensively, ranking as an above average third baseman for the first time in his career. He was worth 3.6 WAR in 136 games before a fractured forearm ended his season a few days early.
Kurt Suzuki was an unheralded one-year free agent signing last offseason when the Twins decided to move Mauer to first base, but the 30-year-old made the best of his situation by hitting .309/.365/.396 in the first half. A .328 BABIP notwithstanding, the Twins re-signed him to a two-year extension at the end of July. Suzuki made the first All-Star appearance of his career, but returned to his normal state in the second half with a .675 OPS. Suzuki is a well-regarded defender, though, the exact opposite of backup Josmil Pinto. Pinto is not on the Opening Day roster after suffering a concussion in spring training, but the 26-year-old Venezuelan failed to throw out a baserunner in 20 steal attempts last season. Utility man Chris Herrmann is Suzuki's backup in the meantime.
After failing to get a contract offer from the Tigers this winter, outfielder Torii Hunter returned to Minnesota, where he spent the first 11 seasons of his career. Twins fans know that Hunter is nowhere near the defender he once was, but his bat was still productive enough to keep him just above replacement level in 2014. Centerfielder Jordan Schafer won his starting spot during a spring training battle, beating out Aaron Hicks, who was sent to the minor leagues. Hicks struck out three times against Justin Verlander in his major league debut in 2013, and seemingly has not recovered. Meanwhile, Schafer is a speedy option who got on base at a .347 clip in 147 plate appearances for the Twins last year. Leftfielder Oswaldo Arcia epitomizes the "see ball, hit ball" philosophy, but he did not do much of the latter in 2014. Sure, he hit 20 home runs and drew walks at a league average clip, but he also struck out 31 percent of the time. His 53.1 percent swing rate was the 23rd-highest rate among players with at least 400 plate appearances last year.
The Twins have gone on an unprecedented spending spree over the past few years, committing $128 million in guaranteed money to three pitchers. This may not seem like much, but consider that Ricky Nolasco's four-year, $49 million contract he signed last offseason was the largest free agent deal in Twins history. Then, Ervin Santana topped it with a four-year, $55 million deal this offseason. Amazingly, both contracts already look like massive busts. Santana was suspended without pay for 81 games after testing positive for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. He has been a solid pitcher over the past two years, allowing a 3.58 ERA and 3.67 FIP in over 400 innings. Nolasco is still around, he just wasn't very good last year. He allowed a 5.38 ERA in 2014, the second-highest total among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched. His 4.30 FIP was better, but Nolasco has made a career out of excellent peripherals and middling ERAs. He will be in the Twins' rotation for better or worse, as only an elbow strain was able to knock him out of the starting five at any point in 2014.
There are bright spots, though! Phil Hughes posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in MLB history last season, in large part thanks to a minuscule 1.9 percent walk rate. How good was that? He could have tripled his walk rate and still been among the top 30 qualified starters in baseball. There's no reason to expect that type of regression, though. Hughes showed significant improvements in command and a streamlined arsenal. He may allow the occasional home run, but he's going to get a lot of easy outs too. Righthander Kyle Gibson had some solid moments for the Twins in 2014, most of which came in the first half. He allowed a 3.92 ERA prior to the All-Star break, but a 5.17 ERA after. His FIP went virtually unchanged, and suggests that the rocky finish was mostly a run of bad luck.
Righthander Mike Pelfrey was not happy when the Twins decided to send him to the bullpen, but Ervin Santana's suspension has afforded the 31-year-old another chance at starting. Pelfrey has been awful in two years with the Twins, allowing a 5.56 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 176 1/3 innings. He missed nearly all of the 2014 season after having ulnar nerve decompression surgery in his right elbow. It seems that the better move would have been to keep Pelfrey in the bullpen and call up a younger pitcher with a live arm, but hey, I won't complain. Lefthander Tommy Milone was the guy who initially beat out Pelfrey for the fifth starter's role. Milone's short stint with the Twins last season didn't go well, but he did post a 3.55 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 96 1/3 innings before being traded. Milone has been particularly rough on the Tigers in his career, going 3-0 with a 2.83 ERA in five starts.
The Twins' pitching staff had the worst ERA in the American League last season, but if not for their bullpen, that figure would have been even higher. The Twins had the sixth-highest bullpen ERA in the AL last year, in part thanks to regression from closer Glen Perkins. The 32-year-old lefthander had a 3.65 ERA in 61 2/3 innings last season, well above the 2.45 ERA and 2.71 FIP he had in 194 2/3 innings from 2011 to 2013. There aren't any red flags in his numbers, though, and his 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career high. Casey Fien posted a solid 3.49 FIP thanks to a career-best 3.9 percent walk rate, but his 3.98 ERA wasn't quite so rosy. His 19.6 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2009, when he played for the Tigers. Tim Stauffer and Brian Duensing are a pair of solid veterans, but neither is likely to suddenly become a relief ace.
Down on the farm
The Twins' farm system hasn't gotten as much hype as the Chicago Cubs' talented group of minor leaguers did this offseason, but their system is every bit as deep and talented. Byron Buxton, a 21-year-old outfielder, is still considered among many to be the best prospect in baseball despite an unimpressive and injury-filled 2014 season. Third baseman Miguel Sano is not far behind, though he missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Pitchers Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, and Jose Berrios would all rank at the top of many other farm systems, and they all possess fastball velocity atypical of your usual Twins starter. Nick Gordon and Nick Burdi, a pair of 2014 draftees, also have impact potential. The organization has drawn some criticism for their its continued reliance on mediocre veterans, but the youth movement will be here soon.
Player to watch: Oswaldo Arcia
This is the most entertaining video you will watch today.
Arcia isn't the best hitter on the Twins' roster, but he might be the most exciting. He sells out for power with just about every swing, an approach that resulted in 20 home runs, a 31 percent strikeout rate, and a 109 wRC+ last season. He drew enough walks to keep his on-base percentage respectable for a player with his immense power, but an uptick in plate discipline could serve the 23-year-old well. His defense can be adventurous at times, which is always fun.
The Twins have a bright future ahead of them, but the current roster paints a rather bleak picture for 2015. The Twins' management has opted for veteran stability in lieu of youthful upside in its Opening Day roster, in hopes that the extra time in the minor leagues will help their young players be ready to contribute right away in 2016. The Twins could make a run at contention in an "everyone's got a shot" sense, but the Santana suspension is already one big gut punch for a franchise that has had several of those in the past few years. Expect another last place finish from the Twins in 2015.